FC Barcelona travel to Andalusia tomorrow for the second time in two weeks as they get set to take on Malaga in the second-leg of the Copa del Rey quarter-final. After slipping to a disappointing 2-2 home draw in the first-leg, Barcelona need to win if they are to secure their place in the semi-finals, although another 2-2 draw will send the tie into extra-time. Obviously, any score draw that ends with both teams scoring at least three goals will also send the Blaugrana through courtesy of the away-goal ruling. Bearing that in mind, the odds are probably in Malaga’s favour – but will Manuel Pellegrini’s side be able to capitalise on their advantage and knock the reigning champions out?
Unfortunately, Tito Vilanova will not be leading the team tomorrow as he is in New York undergoing further treatment, but fear not, Jordi Roura is set to stand in and hopefully lead the Blaugrana to a place in the semi-finals. Roura has done an excellent job in the few times he has had to fill in for Vilanova, and there is no reason to suggest that that is about to change. Despite receiving the medical green light to return to action, Isaac Cuenca will not play a part in tomorrow’s match.
In goal, Victor Valdés is set to make way for regular Copa del Rey keeper Jose Manuel Pinto, who made what turned out to be a costly mistake in the first-leg. Admittedly, Thiago could have done better after receiving the pass, and someone should have warned Thiago of the imminent challenge from Manuel Iturra, but Pinto’s pass selection was questionable to say the very least.
In defense, I expect Dani Alves to start on the right-hand side of defense, although Dani may face competition from fellow Brazilian, Adriano. On one hand, Alves is arguably the better "big-game" player, and has proved his worth over a long, successful career with the club, but on the other hand, Adriano has arguably been the better player thus far this season. Equally comfortable on either his right or left-foot, Adriano offers something different to the Barcelona attack, although Alves may well be the better defender (not that you would have guessed during Saturday’s defeat). It’s a tough choice, but personally, I would start with Alves.
In the centre of defense, Gerard Piqué should start given that he is now suspended for the weekend’s match with Osasuna, but who will start alongside Barcelona’s newest father? And while we are on the subject, will Piqué still start after the birth of his son, Milan? Clearly, I think he will, and I suspect that he will be partnered by Javier Mascherano, especially as Marc Bartra was left out of the squad (again). That leaves the left-back spot free for Jordi Alba, who didn’t feature at all in the first-leg.
In midfield, I would start Sergio Busquets at pivote, although there is a case for Alex Song, who has been named in the final 19-man squad. The case isn’t particularly strong, but Song could start, especially if Roura wants to keep Busquets in reserve ready for the weekend’s match with Osasuna. Ahead of Busquets (or Song), I suspect that Thiago will retain his place in the starting line-up despite his error in the first-leg, and I would like to see Thiago start with Xavi in support. With Xavi on hand to help out, Thiago would be free to act as the "creator" in the Barca midfield, while Xavi would also help Barcelona control the midfield – something that they struggled to do at times in the first-leg.
Lionel Messi will start in attack – it’s almost unavoidable – but who will start in support of the Argentine superstar? David Villa has recovered from his injury to be named in the squad, but it seems unlikely that Roura will start with El Guaje in attack. Personally, I think that Villa should start – we could really use someone with his confidence in front of goal in such a difficult stadium – but we could equally see starts for Alexis Sánchez and/or Cristian Tello. Pedro is another candidate who could start, but has seen limited action in the Copa del Rey, and instead Roura will likely save Pedro for Sunday’s match with Osasuna.
Malaga boosted their defensive options today with the loan signing of Uruguayan captain Diego Lugano, who joins from Paris Saint-Germain. Lugano however is not part of the squad for tomorrow’s match. Jeremy Toulalan has also been left out, amidst rumours linking the Frenchman with a move away from La Rosaleda. Nacho Monreal misses out through suspension, while star playmaker Isco is also set to miss out through injury. However, Pellegrini has given a first "call-up" to Chelsea loanee Lucas Piazon, even if the Brazilian is unlikely to feature.
FC Barcelona 2-2 Malaga CF – 16th January 2013 – Copa del Rey
An injury-time equaliser from Ignacio Camacho secured a 2-2 draw for the visitors, who were minutes away from a first-leg defeat, despite opening the scoring through Manuel Iturra.
Barcelona (4-3-3): Pinto; Alves, Piqué, Mascherano, Alba; Busquets, Xavi, Thiago; Sánchez, Messi, Villa
Malaga (4-2-3-1): Kameni; Gamez, Demichelis, Weligton, Eliseu; Iturra, Camacho; Joaquin, Buonanotte, Duda; Santa Cruz
The last time Barcelona failed to register a win in three consecutive games? Last season’s infamous six day spell where Barcelona faced Chelsea, Real Madrid and Chelsea. Odds of a repeat? I’d say the odds are looking pretty slim. Barca will want to set up a possible semi-final clash with Real Madrid (more Clasicos!), and show the world that the past couple of games were nothing more than a momentary blip. I’m going for a repeat of Barcelona’s last result at La Rosaleda – 3-1 to the visitors.